On the road at 9:00 today, heading Northeast. First stop, the Brooding Canadian in St. Juliaan, where we had a nice view over the ground where the Germans made history’s first attack with asphyxiating gas on April 22 1915. Then it was off to the German cemetery at Langemark. Like the other German cemeteries I’ve visited, Langemark has a feeling unlike anything one experiences in a CWGC cemetery, or indeed a French or Belgian one. First off, there are some 44 000 burials crammed in a space that would serve maybe 3k burials in a typical CWGC site. Then there’s the colour of the stones (black) their placement (all flat on the ground facing upwards), and the fact that each one commemorates between two and two dozen men.
We had a pretty lively series of discussions about why these choices were made. As a group I think we decided that practicalities driven by politics dictated the form of the cemetery and headstones. This is not to say that aesthetics were ignored, merely that other factors determined them. In that Langemark isn’t so different than the CWGC sites, except of course that the factors shaping its aesthetics were somewhat different. Overall our take was that while the CWGC cemeteries both lament and glorify the dead, Langemark is much more focused on mourning.
Our next stop, Tyne Cot cemetery, near Passchendaele reinforced this point very nicely. Even thronged with visitors (no fewer than 5 buses) there’s a dignified grandeur about Tyne Cot. Everything from the classical flourishes through the choice of location to the monumental cross of sacrifice says, well, ‘To our Glorious Dead’. It got me thinking – not for the first time – about Sassoon and what he would have made of our ceremonies and our buses full of earnest visitors. [I’m going to let that percolate and write a post on it in a few days.]
From Tyne Cot we darted in to Passendale for lunch. Service was glacial, but that was fine as we all took the time to reflect on the commemorative monuments we’d seen over the last few days a do some journal writing. Journals and bellies full, it was back to Ypres to visit the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum is almost too good. It’s so packed with brilliantly designed and realized exhibits (many of them interactive and some of them harrowing) that it can get a little overwhelming. Two hours is hardly enough time to skim the surface. Two days would be more realistic for a comprehensive and serious minded exploration. Then there’s the belfry, which is a bit of a climb (and an extra two euros) but you can’t beat the views. Two of ours got especially lucky and witnessed the bells being rung.
Post museum it was time for the Ypres Scavenger hunt, or, as @mshagerman put it “Where’s Hagerman?” Apparently our clues (photos of me in various locations with Great War ties throughout the town) were too vague/demanding for most. Grumbling (largely good natured) ensued, but i think all was forgiven when we took the gang for supper at a really nice restaurant on the Market Square directly adjacent to the magnificent Cloth Hall. There was time for ice-cream and souvenir shopping before we retired to our hotel, where a couple of brave souls toured the open-air trench museum in the front garden.
Me? I went for a mini-tour of my own after dropping the others off. Just wanted to see a few places with personal significance. You may hear about those eventually as well if you watch this space long enough.
Now it’s time for ‘blanket drill’ as the soldiers used to say. Tomorrow’s our last full day of WWI related activities. : (